Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Point of Return

This is it. I'm still in Barcelona, technically, but a few minutes ago, I legally exited the country of Spain. It's a phenomenon I've gotten used to. No man's land. A new country on the other side. Except this time, this country is the one that issued me my passport.

In a few minutes time, if all goes well, I will board my flight to John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York City, New York State, of the United States of America.

I told a friend last night, I feel like I'm leaving something unfinished. A bit like looking over a hotel room, bag in hand, just before you check out and turn in the room key, and having the distinct feeling that you're forgetting something. Nine times out of ten, you haven't forgotten anything. I hope this is one of those times.

Today marks 19 months since I left my country, and soon, I hope, the day I return.

I will see you soon.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


I've been spending the last week in Spain, knowing that this is the last step before coming back to the United States of America. If I do come back on the planned 27th date, It will have been exactly 19 months since I left. I'll come within four timezones of regaining the day I lost to the international date line and have been earning back, hour by hour, for more than a year. I'll be one time zone from being able to say that I have, literally, been around the world.

I used to picture this point of my trip. I remember one time, getting off a plane from Cairns to Darwin, walking down the jetway, and imagining: what if this were the jetway onto SeaTac airport in Seattle? To be honest, it scared me. A couple times last year I had this weird recurring dream where I had flown home, and everybody was happy to see me, but kind of wondering why I was back. Then I'd realized that I hadn't gone to Africa, that I'd come so close to hitting every continent but had just missed out. My closer friends and family would console me by saying "well, you can always go there on another trip" and I'd sit there with five days growth of beard, nursing a warm beer, muttering "You don't understand, I coulda been a contender."

 Anyway it hasn't turned out like that, thank you very much. Instead, I mostly ended up rereading something I wrote a few years ago, at the end of a different trip. Especially one line: "And when someone on the street asks you 'how was it?', you’ll never be able to give them an answer that captures the whole thing no matter how hard you try."

In a backpacking culture that tends to ask people where they're from before asking their name, there's this moment I've gotten very used to. It's the one where the person you're talking to turns to you and says, "So, what brings you here? Vacation?"

I've been playing with how to answer that one for a while. Sometimes I'll be subtle but wanting them to ask more, so I'll say "something like that..."  Or if I don't feel like explaining, I'll just say, "more of a gap year thing." Or sometimes I'll be blunt and go for shock value: "nope. Round the world trip." Then they, thinking of your standard, round the world ticket of Australia's East Coast, Thailand, and Western Europe, will say "oh yeah, one of those. How long have you been doing it for?" That's when the jaws usually hit the floor.

Then come the questions. It's funny how varied they can be. It's like when I tell people I'm from Seattle. They immediately say one thing off a long list: Nirvana/Kurt Kobain, Sleepless in Seattle, Grey's Anatomy, Frasier, Starbucks, Microsoft, Jimi Hendrix, Pearl Jam (always a good one for me, since I went to their high school), Boeing, and of course, rain. The funny thing about it isn't that they they all do it. It's that they all pick only one thing off the list, and then say something about how everyone must always say that one specific thing. Usually they're really surprised to hear about the others. "Oh, wow. Hadn't heard/thought of those."

Same thing with the questions people ask when they hear about my trip. They're always hesitant because they think the one question that occurs to them is the same one question that occurs to everyone else, something I'm sick of answering. Usually it isn't. Honestly what happens is that most people either have no idea what to ask me or are just so intimidated by the idea that they change the subject.

Unless they're one of the 10%ish that asks me what my favorite country is. Then they're absolutely right to hesitate, because I cannot stand that question. Especially from the people who, when I ask for a category or some qualifier, refuse to budge and demand my favorite country, period. I've been trying to figure out a way to explain why that's impossible to answer, but every time I try to use a metaphor, they just don't get it.

"It's like, lining up all your friends and pointing at your favorite one." I say.

"Yeah, I could do that." They say. Apparently they don't have that many friends to choose from.

My favorites to answer, on the other end of the spectrum, are the ones who want to know either something about a place they want to go, or how they could do something like I've done. I want people to know how easy this is, and how much they stand to gain. We all dream of adventure. Every once in a while I'll get something on Facebook telling me I'm the most inspiring person friend X knows. This has swollen my ego to seriously dangerous proportions, and I'm very grateful for the other set of friends I have who can tell when my head has swollen to the size of a blimp and can go get the sharp needles out. But my point is while I'm flattered-- really flattered-- by stuff like that, I'd be even more so if what I have done gets someone else to travel abroad independently for the first time.

...that would be your cue to go look up flight prices, hostel availability, shared ride deals, travel destination info, travel insurance, and to sign up for couchsurfing. Have fun, kids!

In the meantime, Weathorr (scavvies, that one was for you), in its infinite wisdom has granted me an extra weekend in Spain before crossing the Atlantic. It was a tough call. Barcelona has been great, and weekends here are supposed to be magical, but there's also a little something happening in Seville called the Feria de Abril. And with a few friends over there, I've decided to go check it out.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Iceland Volcano: how you can help stranded travelers

Across the world in hub cities are people stuck in airports for days without money, sleeping on chairs and living of vouchers for one (usually McDonalds) meal a day. Flights are starting again, but some travelers can still use your help. Here's what you can do if you live near an international airport.

First, online solutions for the tech savvy:

If you use Facebook, check , and  When Volcanoes Erupt -- A Survival Guide for Stranded Travelers. You'll find people looking for and offering help and advice.

If you use twitter, follow these hashtags: #getmehome#ashtag#putmeup and #roadsharing.

If you're on couchsurfing, search for your hometown, using the drop-down menus, and look for your city's group and any last minute/ emergency request groups.

If you're in New York City, and can host someone, contact the French Consulate. They need people and can point you to who else needs people.

Finally if these things seem too intimidating or you don't use the sites and can't sign up, do things the old fashioned way. Call or go to your airport, bring food, and look around. You can approach people, or even ask an airline check in desk to make a PA announcement. You might find more hungry people than people wanting to leave, as several will want to stick around to see if there are more flights.

Thanks to Tracy Staedter of Discovery News for the twitter and Facebook links, and "Stephanie" at Airbnb for the NYC/France tip.

Please pass this information along.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Under a Cloud of Ashes

The short story is that while things looked tight for a bit thanks to the Iceland volcano eruption, I will be flying to New York a little later than planned. It's too soon to say with any certainty, but my guess is I'll be in the US by next Tuesday, the 27th.

The long story is that Eyjafjallajokull (pronounce that one for 10 points) blew up, sending a cloud of ash covering most of the European continent at 30,000 feet-- right where the planes fly. Spain was not covered by the ash cloud. So you'd think Spain would be unaffected, right? Wrong.

Madrid has buses to Barcelona running about every 30 minutes any given day. I wanted to get one at 1:00pm. I couldn't get one until 7:30pm, because all the others were booked solid. In fact, I wouldn't have been able to get even that if somebody hadn't cancelled-- I would have been waiting until the next day.

Stranded travelers from all over the world have diverted their flights from London, Paris, Brussels, Frankfurt, Berlin, Dublin, Copenhagen, and beyond, and directed them to Madrid. Then they're taking ground transport home. Buses are jammed. Trains are jammed. Spanish car rental companies have been forced to issue decrees saying their cars aren't allowed to leave the country, because too many people have already taken cars and driven off the France and beyond.

When I finally arrived at 3:30am, I met a group of stranded study abroad students trying to sleep in the only room of the bus station open between 2 and 5:30am. They had been waiting for over 24 hours after their domestic flight to Madrid had been cancelled. Fun times trying to sleep and waking up next to homeless people. They were pretty miserable.

I don't have it so bad. I was counting on a method for flying involving waiting lists. That doesn't work very well when an entire continent is trying to buy tickets for your preferred flights. Briefly, it looked bad enough for me to take a trip down to the port and ask about boats crossing the Atlantic (there basically aren't any from here). But now that Eyjafjallajokull has calmed down a bit, it looks like I'll be able to fly from Barcelona in about a week.

So that means less time traveling around the US when I get back (I've got some judicial responsibilities to attend to in Chicago for a certain four days), but I'll make NY and Chicago as planned. We'll take it from there.

Ash Thursday

My original flight date to the US was Thursday, April 23. That was before Iceland blew up. Now, all bets are off on my coming return to the US. I have no ticket, and no probable return date. Yet. I'll post more details on this blog in a few hours.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Avenida de la Memoria

I stepped off the bus and out into the street, translated for a Texan backpacker who needed to get a taxi, and stood up with my bag properly for the first time in this city. I hadn't quite gotten used to it yet, where I was. I looked right and started to walk. It was a waking flashback, the kind that are only supposed to exist in the movies. You remember all the sights and smells from that time in your past, and the sounds, taste of the air, dirt under your shoes feel just as real as if it were now.

Well, it was real. For the first time in 19 months, I had returned to a city I knew. In 2003, a handful of my friends from high school and I came to Spain for three weeks, as part of a mini exchange program. It was my first time in Europe without my parents. One week touring Castilla y Leon and Castilla la Mancha, then two weeks in Seville, the first being Holy Week. I was sixteen.

And after a 30-minute ferry ride from Africa to Europe, and a bus from Tarifa, I was back. Back in Seville, for the first time in exactly seven years, almost to the day. The buildings looked right. The streets looked right. The smells, the signs, everything looked...

...better. It was like I'd lost contact with a cute girl from middle school and run into her again, grown up into a beautiful woman. The streets were cleaner, the trash was gone, the peeling-paint buildings I remembered with weeds growing from the roofs had been refurbished and renewed. Bike paths with their own signals ran down the sidewalks with public bike kiosks for rental. A streamlined, futuristic streetcar hummed along the major thoroughfares. The new is purring alongside the old which still has all the history and character I remember. The marble and stone is cleaned up to how it must have looked all those centuries ago when it was new. It's the elegance of the old world with the polish of the new. I could see a station for the brand new metro system down the street from where--

--yes, that was definitely it. That's the bridge my roommate and I crossed every day to go to our Spanish class. That's the Plaza de Cuba, and the Torre del Oro on the other side. The first sight of my life before this adventure, since it began.

It's warm, the birds are singing to the sunset, the people look happy, and even though they're not speaking English, I can actually understand what they're saying again! Mostly. Sort of. Maybe I'm kinda rusty. But still!

I spent the first full day sightseeing. There was usual stuff, but it wasn't for the usual reasons. I found the back avenue leading to where we saw the flamenco dancers. I sat under the fountain where I thought I was going to be squeezed to death by the crowd but where I got the perfect view of a holy week procession under the sunset. I climbed the clock tower of the cathedral where I'd tried to take pictures out of, and where I'd forgotten that my old film camera's viewfinder didn't line up with the lens, giving me half my pictures blocked by a metal railing. Even the stupid Texas-themed bar behind the cathedral some of my friends stumbled into one night was still in business.

I think I found the corner where my host family's apartment lived. I definitely found the square where I'd meet a couple of my friends and they'd tell us stories about how their demented host granny kept yelling things at them like "No peleas en la calle!" (Don't fight in the street!). I retraced a chunk of the path where the four of us, without saying a word about it, kicked a coke bottle down the street for at least ten minutes. I sketched out the rough route home we took the first time I ever had to take care of a drunk person, being the only sober one to shush them when they go too excited about the Spanish word for "wall" and when they tried to throw discarded glass bottles from the bridge. Even with them drunk and me sober, they were still better at navigating the streets than I was. There aren't any beer bottles or any other kinds of trash on that bridge now.

I walked along the river, remembering how seven years, three days, and about six hours before, I had moodily strolled along this same spot a night with a coke to have some time alone and to think about something that seemed terribly important at the time. Probably girls, knowing me at sixteen. But also the decision that I needed to call home. I used a payphone across the river and an MCI calling card my parents had given me with 560-something minutes advertised. For overseas calls, it gave us 34. Enough to wish my family a Happy Easter. Afternoon for them. Three am the next day for me.

This time, I hopped into the couchsurfing scene for rooftop barbecues, poetry and music, bars, and of course, tapas. Because reliving old memories is nice, but it's even better making some new ones while you're at it. More paella, bocadillos, and churros con chocolate, more exploring hidden alleyways, more parties, action-packed nights under the stars and lazy mornings that saw us up just in time for siesta again. Even met a couple old friends I'd met in other parts of the world. This was a good return.

I'm not in Seville anymore. I'm in Lisbon. Maybe a little frustrating, going from a country where I (theoretically) understand the language, to one where everybody seems to be speaking the same language's nasal equivalent of pig latin, too fast for me to get any words through my ears into sense. But once more I'm with friends I made in other parts of the trip. It's not often you get to explain that the friend you're staying with is someone you met over mulled wine in a village of mud and wood on an island in Siberia. I love this planet and I love my life on it.

Check out this entry's Photos.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

All that talking

A group of backpackers are sitting around a hostel lounge in Turkey. They're talking about touts, the hustlers that try to grab backpackers on the street and sell them something at inflated prices, take them to a hotel or bus for a commission that the traveler then has to pay, or just generally try to lie, cheat, or steal to get a fast buck off of unwary foreigners.

"India was unreal. So many of them!" One says.
"I dunno, Cairo was pretty bad." Says another. "One guy followed me in and out of five stores. Five. Just so he could get a commission from whatever hotel I went to. I told him to go away and he just wouldn't listen."
"I had some bad ones in Thailand." Says yet another. "Guys kept telling me whatever place I wanted to visit was closed and I should go see this other temple I'd never heard of. Then it would be a gemstone scam! Tried to sell me these pieces of green glass he called 'uncut limestone.' Ridiculous."
"But you know what the worst country was for this?" The first guy says. "Morocco."
"Worse than India?"
"Oh yeah."

I'd been part of this conversation more than once in different parts of the world. Morocco was a byword for hassle for travelers. So when I landed, I had my guard up. Especially after a stern talking-to by my hostel owner-- basically said "Don't talk to strangers here, you can't trust them." Went on for quite some time about it.

So, my first morning in Fes, I walked into the 700-year-old Ville Nouvelle (as Lonely Planet apparently says, only in this part of the world could a 700-year-old area be called "new town"), and waited for the plague to descend. Nothing. People hardly gave me a second glance. I walked down the street. One or two restaurant owners called out 'Bonjour' and gestured to a table, but that was it.

I tried an experiment. I walked by a cart selling sunglasses and let my gaze linger on a pair for three seconds. In many countries, this would cause the merchant to chase me down the street, bellowing "Hello my friend! Special price for you!! Hello! Hello!" Here? Nothing. I grew bold, walked back, and openly looked, taking my time. Still nothing. I walked up to the display and inspected a specific pair. It wasn't until I caught the merchant's eye and said 'salaam alekum' that he even gave me a second glance before returning to sipping his mint tea.

Was this even the same country that the others had told me about?

In some ways it wasn't. It was when I came to one specific part that was mentioned in the guidebooks that I suddenly found myself surrounded by English signs, chintzy decor, doubled prices for food on actual menus, and White and Asian tourists. But even there, hassle was minimal. It was on the outskirts of this area that I started meeting a few hustlers, one who gave me a little push in the back and told me to 'go away' when I ignored him.

And once I was past that part, they melted away. Just some curious glances from other pedestrians, and some cute kids playing tag and yelling "bonjour!" when they saw me.

Later, I was having some mint tea with a Moroccan guy who spoke English, and he told me a story from a couple years ago. He'd been sitting in a cafe, speaking to a British guy in English, and another foreign woman came over and asked if she could ask a few questions. She was from the National Geographic, she said, and she was writing a story about Moroccans who come back after a long time in Europe. She offered to show them what she had so far. He read it, and was so disgusted by the amount of lies and factual errors, that he made her tear it up into pieces. He gave her a couple hours a day, just to set the facts straight about Morocco and Moroccan culture.

"People go to these places and they think they know what they're talking about but they don't. Not really. They just take whatever s*** they read about it before coming. Or they talk to people here who don't really know what's going on. It's true! They don't know. Not like me. I know."

I don't think he saw the irony when, later that evening, he proceeded to outline his complaints about European society, never having been to Europe himself, but defending his assertions with a heated "I know what it's like! I watch it on TV and I talk to friends! I know!" But, after my talking to in Fes about not talking to strangers, I was a amused that one of his assertions was that you could trust strangers in Morocco and not in the West.

I've heard a saying that a fool thinks he knows everything, and a wise man marvels at how much he doesn't know. Because after all that talking, you never really know that much, do you?

Check out this entry's Photos.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

...and back again.

I found this sign in Johannesburg. It's a reminder of one of the many lessons I learned on this trip. No matter where you are, someone thinks it's exotic.

A few days ago, I was headed this way. But I was still very much on The Trip. Rambling through the Drakensburg mountains to Johannesburg, walking in the rain with my couchsurfing host while he ran me through some of the contradictions of his hometown. But that wasn't what I had come for. I came to catch a flight.

Half a year a go, I broke my old estimate of "year or when my cash runs out, whichever comes first" so I could see Africa. Three months ago, I made it to Cairo and started my way south.

But this flight wasn't for that. This flight was for something else. Yesterday, I reversed my last three months of travel and returned to Cairo in a little under eight hours. I spent twelve hours there, mostly in a hotel room, courtesy of Egypt Air. Then I got on another flight, to Casablanca.

I'm writing from Morocco.

It could be the start of something new and big. I could loop down West Africa, cross up to the UK, skip across Scandinavia into Poland, across more of eastern Europe like Ukraine, drop down to Iran, the Persian gulf, cross into the safer 'stans, down west China through Tibet and Nepal into north India, across Burma to Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and, and, and...

...no. That's not why I'm here.

After over a year and a half of adventure, I'm here on a little side trip to see Morocco and to visit some memories in Spain and Portugal. Then, a sentence I've been waiting to write for a very long time.

I'm coming home.

It won't be direct. I have a lot of people I want to visit and thank. First I will arrive in New York City, then make a stop or two in the east coast, then turn to Chicago. After that, it'll be time to come back to Seattle, put down my backpack, eat dinner with my family, pet our cats, and go sleep in the little twin bed I grew up with.

Then we'll get to see how true that sign in Joburg is.